The Lady of Portraits
+July 20, 2020
PLEASE NOTE: *The Neue galerie in New York is temporarily closed due to the pandemic alert, a reopening is expected in the future. The MADAME D’ORA exhibition will be up until January 2021.
A privileged witness of the artistic scene in Paris in the 1920s, Madame D’Ora was a pioneer in fashion photography, during a time when fashion shots started to replace magazine illustrations.
At the very the beginning of her career, she practiced the artistic blur in studio, which became one of her technical characteristics. Through the use of blurred lenses she obtained a blurry effect along the contours of the faces, perfectly in line with the pictorialist style of the beginning of the 20th century.
The Neue Galerie in New York has been exhibiting a retrospective dedicated to her photographic work and artistic life since February 20th, 2020 and ongoing until the 4th of January 2021.
Dora Philippine Kallmus (1881-1963), better known as Madame d’Ora, was born to a wealthy Jewish family of lawyers in Vienna. She became famous as the main portraitist of the artistic and intellectual Viennese scene and as a pioneer of fashion photography. Extremely well cultured and supported by her father in her career choices, Dora was the first woman to attend the theory course of Graphische Lehr-und Versuchsanstalt (the Graphic Institute of Vienna) and later the first woman to open a photographic studio that bears her name.
In 1905, she became a member of the Vienna Photographic Society and started to work in Nicola Perscheid's studio in Berlin, where became friends with his assistant, German photographer, Arthur Benda. Together they established a photographic studio called Atelier Benda - D’Ora in 1907, which is when she started to use the pseudonym Madame D’Ora, to reflect her love of French culture and it became professionally employed by her for the rest of her life. The studio was decorated with direct lighting to enhance the movement and the plasticity of the body.
Already being familiar with the Viennese aristocracy, she soon achieved popularity among them as portraitist and began to shoot kings, politicians and artists. The artist’s first portrait was one of Gustav Klimt in 1908, followed by many other personalities as for example the writer Arthur Schnitzel and the dancer Anna Pavlova.
From 1921 to 1926, D’Ora and Benda spent the summers in Karlsbad in order to reach a more international clientele, and in 1925 they opened a studio in Paris together. However, Benda decided to return to Vienna and in 1927 he took over their studio there. It provoked a definitive break: D’Ora and Benda never spoke to each other again.
In Paris, D’Ora delved into the international fashion industry and signed long-term contracts with fashion magazines such as Die Dame and L’Officiel de la Couture et de la Mode. Her sophisticated portraits reflected the glamorous style of her clients there, including designer Coco Chanel, painter Tamara de Lempicka, writer Colette, dancer Josephine Baker and performer Maurice Chevalier.
D’Ora was one of the first photographers to become interested in the emerging fields of her time such as modern dance and fashion, particularly after 1920. Despite the fact that her photographic technique was not radical, her choice of avant-garde subjects was a risky one for a commercial studio. However, D’Ora’s photographs, which captured her clients’ individuality with new and natural positions in contrast to stiff, old-fashioned poses, quickly became popular.
Unfortunately, another World War was looming, and D’Ora who was a disenfranchised Jew, started to receive fewer offers during the mid-1930s. She lost her Paris studio in 1940 and had to hide from German occupying forces in France.
After 1945, she turned her gaze away from socialite circles to focus on nameless concentration camp survivors as well as on the Parisian abattoirs and their meat stock. In 1959, she was hit by a motorcycle and lost much of her memory. This accident hindered her work and she spent her remaining years in Frohnleiten, Austria. She died on October 28, 1963.
Madame D’Ora, fanned by the wing of genius, strolls in a labyrinth whose minotaur goes from the Dolly Sisters to the terrible bestiary of the slaughterhouses—where this ageless woman, more lucid than any young man, brushes the killers aside with a gesture and sets up her camera in their stead in front of the daily sacrifice of our carnivorous cult.